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Can You Believe What The Papers Say?

Can You Believe What The Papers Say?

“Red wine is good for your heart”
“Red wine is bad for your heart”
“Red wine causes cancer”
“Red wine cures Dutch Elm Disease”

We’re all bombarded with health claims in the news, but can they be trusted?

Here’s an article that probably won’t have made it into many newspapers!

“the quality of media reports is questionable”

(quotes from the researchers)

A study has shown that just over half of news items reporting on medical trials were subject to “spin”. By “spin” the researchers meant that the reporting of the results were presented to create a positive impression (rather than simply stating the facts).

The researchers gave some examples of “spin”…

Reporting results that were not statistically significant (the results could have been chance).
And…

Focusing on a subgroup when the main results had not been favourable – e.g. a trial looking at a new type 2 diabetes drug might have not have found any benefit for its use but by analysing a specific subgroup (e.g. women in their 20’s) a slight beneficial effect could be found – this would then be reported as a “breakthrough” – whereas in reality this is hardly newsworthy since there are very few women that would benefit (there are very few women with type 2 diabetes in their 20’s) and the vast majority of the population would not benefit at all.

This “may be responsible for an important gap between the public perception… and the real effect of the treatment studied”

The researchers are NOT saying that the actual trial results are flawed or made up – they are saying that when it comes to reporting the results of the trial in news reports, the results are often made to look better than they really are.

With a hugely competitive press market and great pressures to report something “ground breaking” this may not be so surprising – but the innocent reader needs to read health related reports in the news with a healthy dose of scepticism!

 

The key message? Don’t believe everything you read!

 

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If you want to read the research article itself – here it is…
Yavchitz A, Boutron I, Bafeta A, et al. Misrepresentation of Randomized Controlled Trials in Press Releases and News Coverage: A Cohort Study. PLoS Medicine. Published online September 11 2012

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